The top disaster news in the past few weeks has been major flooding in communities across Canada. From New Brunswick to Alberta and British Columbia, it’s been a wet spring for Canadians across the country.
Here in BC, the city of Grand Forks was inundated with the most water they’ve seen since 1948. Other communities in the Kootenay-Boundary region, in which Grand Forks is located, also saw serious flooding.
What I found interesting was this article from Vancouver’s Georgia Straight magazine, entitled “Researchers raised concerns years before Grand Forks flood about climate change effects on West Kettle River.” The article quotes two scientific papers from 1998 and 2013 that supposedly predicted the flooding in the Kootenay-Boundary region.
The 1998 paper was published in the Canadian Water Resources Journal by Rory Leith and Paul Whitfield. Leith is listed as a consultant in the Penticton area, while Whitfield is (now retired) from Environment Canada.
The study examined streamflow records from south-central BC, looking for signs of a climate change signal by comparing the period 1971-1983 to 1984-1995. They found:
“an earlier hydrologic spring, longer summer recession, and higher late fall-early winter flows.”
Spring freshet occurred on average 20 days earlier in the latter decade relative to the previous decade, and end-of-season summer flows were lower in the latter decade as well. They attribute these changes largely to increasing air temperature, which causes earlier spring melt and higher fall/winter flows, when higher temps generate rain instead of snow.
It’s important to note that this study only looked at data up to 1995. Two decades have passed since then, so it’s likely that data from 1996-2017 would show even more significant shifts in streamflow.
The results of this study are not groundbreaking. In fact, they corroborate the findings of other studies across North America that suggest climate change will result in earlier and higher spring freshet, lower late summer flows, and higher fall/winter flow.
A 2007 study by Johnnie Moore, Joel Harper, and Mark Greenwood, published in Geophysical Research Letters, wrote that:
“Stewart et al.  found…spring runoff in streams located in the headwaters of the Columbia and Missouri Rivers shifted earlier by about 6–19 days for the 55 year period of record. (They) attributed their calculated trends toward earlier runoff mostly to temperature increase…”
In 2013, the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium (PCIC) based at the University of Victoria, released a series of climate-related reports for various regions of BC. Their report for the Kootenay-Boundary region was well laid out and easy to understand. They show that air temperature had already warmed by 1°C during the 20th century, and that spring air temperature is expected to increase by 2°C by the 2020s.
Remember that, in the Leith and Whitfield paper, they attribute changes in streamflow to higher air temperatures. Given PCIC’s predicted increase in spring air temperature, we should expect more spring flooding in years when we have a substantial snowpack.
The Georgia Straight article suggests that we already knew what was coming for the Kootenay-Boundary region. But that implies: (a) that researchers specifically said when the region would flood, which they didn’t. They said there was increased potential for flooding; and (b) it suggests that regional municipalities were made aware of the results of these two studies – something that doesn’t always happen.
This makes a strong case for the importance of science communication, and of connecting with communities that are the focus of your research so that you can alert them of any issues they should be aware of. How many municipal governments read the scientific literature related to their region? Probably very few – where would they even start, given that municipal governments deal with everything from housing to taxes, to flooding to road repair, and everything in between?
The onus is on researchers to connect with the communities they’re studying, and to give them easily understandable summaries of what they might expect under a changing climate. This doesn’t relate only to flooding, but to wildfire, drought, and other emergency management issues. The PCIC report, for example, has a nice, readable format, though some of the wording may still be overly technical for a general audience. The Leith and Whitfield paper, however, is a classic scientific paper that’s written for a scientific audience, not a general audience. But, given that one of the authors was with Environment Canada, I would have expected that they would share their results with the communities involved.
As SFU’s Jeremy Venditti says in the article I linked to above, we can’t necessarily attribute this year’s particular flooding event to climate change. But we can say that it’s consistent with what we would expect under a climate change scenario: higher snowpack due to a wetter winter, high spring temperatures, and earlier and higher spring runoff.
According to Ebbwater’s Tamsin Lyle, a bigger issue is floodplain development.
“British Columbians need to reconsider their relationship to floodplains. “We keep putting people and infrastructure – critical infrastructure – in floodplains,” she says.
So we really have two communication issues here.
One is to let communities know the results of environmental research done in their area. In this case we’re focused on flooding, but it could be any relevant environmental issue. The second is to talk about urban development in floodplain regions. The latter is something that’s come up previously, during a flooding roundtable hosted by Ralph Goodale last fall that I wrote about for Water Canada, and the follow-up work that’s come from that initiative.
As I wrote in my last blog post about communicating wildfire, communicating with communities about emergency issues like flooding is critical. It’s even more useful if you can have conversations before such events occur, to make sure everyone is prepared. This is where scientists come in. If you’re doing research on a particular municipality or region, and you have research results you think might be useful for them, share! Make a presentation to the mayor and council, or do a public presentation for the community. The more people know, the better prepared they’ll be.